Business Communication is Receiver-Centric

The second principle of business communication is that all business communication is receiver-centric. In other words, all messages are geared not to what you want to say as you write or speak, but to what your receiver needs to read or hear. Because the receiver is the ultimate arbiter of meaning, your receiver decides whether your instrumental, relational, and identity goals are met or not.

When it comes to communicating, you should remember that “It’s not what the sender intends to send, but what the receiver perceives is received.” That can be a mouthful. So let’s break it down. First, there is the message that the sender intends to send. The sender (that’s you!), with your goals in mind, will put a message into words. Then the receiver will get that message by reading or listening or watching and will attempt to decipher what you meant. What the sender thinks you said is the message that is received.

You may have seen some definitions of communication describe this process as “encoding” and “decoding” messages.[1] Obviously, communicators want their messages to be understood exactly as they intended. Put another way, they want the encoding and decoding to work flawlessly. But you probably already know that it isn’t always the case.

Sometimes business communicators intend to send one kind of message, but the receiver understands the message in a totally different way. If you think a message is clearly explained but your receivers are having trouble understanding your explanation, then your message is not clear. If you did not mean to cause any offense, but your receivers are insulted by the way you addressed them, then your message is still offensive. And if you wanted to come across as confident, but your receivers thought you were arrogant, then you did not meet your identity goal.

Of course, receivers are responsible for trying to understand the message being sent. And there may be opportunities for you to engage in a dialogue to correct any miscommunication. However, competent business communicators will do as much work up front to minimize miscommunication and ensure that their receivers understand the message as intended.

Receivers are Different from Audiences

Perhaps you are familiar with the term “audience” from public speaking classes. The terms audience and receiver are similar, but differ in important ways. An audience is a group of people who witness a communicative message. They may even participate in a message exchange with you. But a receiver is a specific person or group of people who can act upon the message you send.

Think about the image of audience that comes to your mind. Maybe you’ve played in an orchestra or acted on stage. If you have, you know that when you are on stage, the hot lights shine on you. You may know the audience is out there. You might even be able to see shadowy faces in the first couple of rows. But the farther back the audience goes, the fewer details, if any, you can see. You might also know if the audience is large or small, or if the audience is enjoying your performance based on the amount of laughter or applause you hear in response.

In public speaking situations, you also have an audience. Whether you’re speaking at your local Toastmasters club, delivering a speech in a college classroom, or posting a video blog to social media, there is an audience of people paying attention to what you have to say—or at least pretending to pay attention.

In your studies, you may have learned about audience analysis. For instance, you may have described demographics of the audience. How many women and men are there? What is the average age? You may have also considered the psychographics of the audience. What percentage of the audience is registered to vote in different political parties? Is the audience mostly favorable or mostly unfavorable to your position? The point here is that you likely described your audience in collective terms.

What makes a receiver (whether an individual or a group) different from an audience is that a receiver can act upon your message. Acting upon a message is more involved than getting the audience to laugh or gasp or applaud your performance. In business, it is about getting someone to participate in a meeting, complete a task, make a decision, do repeat business with your company, or invest in your startup.

By analyzing receivers instead of audiences, the focus of your attention shifts. That means the kind of analysis you need to do is not so much about demographics or psychographics of the group but instead on the interdependent relationship you have with the receiver. In the next section, you will learn about some of the ways you can analyze your receiver.

Competent Communicators Analyze their Receiver in Multiple Ways

A receiver analysis focuses on different things than an audience analysis. The two primary components of analysis are content needs and relational dynamics.

Remember that when you are communicating strategically, your purpose is to achieve your goals. That means you need to figure out what your receiver needs to know in order to act upon your message. The “what” refers to your content needs.

Content Components

Often, your receiver’s content needs are relatively easy to analyze. All you need to do is identify the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of your message. But even when you do this, you need to think about your receivers and anticipate their specific informational needs. Here are two broad categories to consider:

Information Needs
One of the first things to consider in your receiver analysis is what information your receiver needs or wants. For instance, if you are inviting someone from another company to a meeting at your company, it may not be enough to simply state in what room you are meeting. For someone who has not visited your company before, you might have to provide an address, information on where to park, and information on how to get a visitor badge to enter your secured building.

You may also need to identify “what’s in it for them” and adapt accordingly. For instance, when presenting a new company initiative, you will likely have to include different information for the information technology team, the social media team, and the human resources team, as those receivers all have different needs. Whereas everyone likely needs some of the same basic information, the IT team likely wants to know how the system will interface with other computer programs, the social media team may need to know what kind of impact the program can have and how they can best promote it, and the HR team may need to have more detail about the impact the program will have on hiring.

Level of Complexity
Another key component of determining content is to gauge the appropriate level of complexity (or simplicity). The level of complexity does not mean “dumbing down” your message. In fact, it is a good idea to assume that all your receivers are intelligent. But depending upon their needs, they may have different expectations for complexity and detail. If you are a business analyst and are presenting findings from a recent data dive, a receiver who also is a business analyst might be centrally concerned with your analytic procedures and will want more detail on your statistical tests. But a high-ranking executive likely will be more concerned with the bottom line and prefer much more simplified coverage of how you analyzed the data.

Relational Components

Once you have established your receiver’s content needs, you also will need to understand your relational dynamics. Relational dynamics are the elements that characterize your relationship with the receiver. In many ways, they are connected with the relational meaning and relational goals of your message.

The reason why understanding relational dynamics is important is because it helps you meet all of your communication goals, not just your relational goals. And getting relational dynamics wrong can have devastating consequences. Take for instance, Joe, a job seeker who writes to a high-ranking company manager to inquire about a posted vacancy for an entry-level job. If Joe addresses the manager too informally and without regard to the manager’s relative power (the power to hire and the projected hierarchal power between a manager and entry-level employee), the manager may be slightly irritated, if not downright offended, by Joe’s attitude. Not only will Joe be unable to meet his relational goal of establishing a positive relationship, he also may fail to meet his identity goals of being viewed as professional, confident, and a good team player. Should that happen, you can bet he won’t be getting a call back for an interview.

Relational dynamics include the following elements:

Power Relationship
One of the first elements to consider in a receiver analysis is the power relationship between you and your receiver. You may have more, equal, or less power than your receiver. Sometimes that power can be hierarchical, such as when power is embedded into an organizational structure, like when bosses have more power than employees. Power can also be based on other kinds of dependencies, such as when companies are dependent upon customers’ purchasing power. There might also be the power to hire/fire, the power of social influence, the power of reputation, and more.

Typically, the rules for interaction change depending upon the power relationship. We’ll cover more in Chapter Two, but upward communication (to someone with more power) usually requires greater tact than downward communication (to someone with less power). For example, it may be perfectly acceptable for a boss to tell an employee, “Get me that report by 5 p.m.” But the same would not be true in reverse. Instead, someone with equal or less power than the receiver might need to make the request more politely: “If you could let me know if my vacation request has been approved, I’d appreciate it.”

Receivers also can be characterized by the degree of familiarity you have with them. The better you know someone, the more familiar your relationship is. If you have ever worked in a customer service industry, you know that some customers are unfamiliar, like the person who comes to your shop for a walk-in appointment or a one-time transaction, and others are “regulars” whom you get to know quite well. While you may be friendly with all customers, there are different expectations for those who are more familiar to you.

As a general rule, when you are relatively unfamiliar with a receiver, you may have to resort to general principles of business etiquette for guiding communication. But as you get more familiar, you will learn more of your receivers’ personal preferences or idiosyncrasies and will be able to incorporate those into your messages. You will learn if they have preferred methods of communicating, a certain sense of humor, or other preferences that will help you in your communication with them.

It is important to note that while familiarity overlaps with relationship quality, they are not the same thing. For example, you may have a very positive or very negative relationship with someone with whom you are familiar. You may have a coworker with whom you are very familiar—but only because that person is the office bully and regularly targets you with his destructive behaviors. It’s even possible to develop goodwill with someone you only have met once.

Formality is the degree to which a relationship generally follows “prim and proper” rules of exchange. In this sense, you may have a relationship that is quite strict or structured, one that is relaxed, or one that is somewhere in between. Often formality has an inverse relationship to familiarity in business. That means as familiarity increases, formality decreases and vice versa.

Think about applying for a job. As you make initial contact about a job inquiry with those you do not know (completely unfamiliar), you likely addressed them formally (e.g., as “Mr. Carter” or “Dr. Jamesson”). But when you got hired and started getting to know the individuals by working with them daily, you might have started calling them by their first names, but still communicated somewhat formally. Then, after you worked with them for a longer time, you may have gotten very familiar and very informal, maybe even addressing them casually, “Hey” instead of “Hello,” popping in to ask questions without setting up a meeting, or even sharing jokes or personal stories.

But just because a relationship is familiar does not mean it is always informal. There will be some relationships that will remain formal despite significant familiarity. For instance, you may have a key client in a financial services firm that you still address formally. If you work in fundraising you may still formally address major donors, even though you regularly socialize with them at networking and philanthropic events. Additionally, some relationships may be formal in some contexts but informal in other contexts. For example, you may extend a casual invitation to your boss for a get-together after work, but you would need to write a formal message if you were addressing the year-end financial reports.

To be clear, attending to relational dynamics is not just about communicating formally. In some situations, communicating formally can have detrimental effects. Case in point: Camille is a CPA who runs a small family-owned tax business. She just got an angry phone call from a close friend (and client) who just received notice that he is being audited by the IRS. If Camille responds in a way that sounds formal and unfamiliar, addressing her friend as “Mr. Jacobsen” when calling him back, she is going to communicate an identity of being uncaring and cold, and she may very well lose her client and her friendship.

Relationship Quality
The quality of the existing relationship is a critical component of receiver analysis because it can help guide decisions about how to communicate particular messages. In most basic terms, a relationship can vary along a continuum from negative to positive, as well as vary in intensity. Positive relationships can be weakly or strongly positive and the same goes for negative relationships. Relationships can be characterized in any number of ways. Here are a few:

suspicious ←          → trustworthy

unstable ←          → stable

new ←         → established

contentious ←         → cordial

Other relationship considerations are possible, depending upon the context of the communication.

The point here is that you need to have a good grasp of your existing relational quality with your receiver. You will have to communicate more carefully with receivers with whom you have a negative relationship than those with whom you have a neutral or positive relationship.

Your Turn: Receiver Analysis

Return to the “Your Turn” example of emailing your boss to let her know that you are ill and will not be at work in the morning. Provide a brief assessment of your receiver.

Content Needs
What does your receiver need to know?

How does your message impact your receiver? Or in other words, what’s in it for them?

Relational Dynamics
Based on the earlier scenario and using the continua below, assess the dynamics of your relationship with your receiver.

Power. What is the power relationship between you and your boss?

Less power than boss ← → More power than boss

Familiarity. How familiar are you with your boss? Do you know him or her well?

Very unfamiliar ← → Very familiar

Formality. How formal of a relationship do you have with your boss?

Very informal ← → Very formal

Quality. What is the quality of your relationship with your boss?

Suspicious ← → Trustworthy
Unstable ← → Stable
New ← → Established
Contentious ← → Cordial

Questions to Ponder
1. How does your receiver analysis influence how you would write your message?

2. How might this receiver analysis be different if you had known your boss for several years?

Now that you know that business communication is both goals-oriented and receiver-centric, it will be easier for you to think about how to communicate strategically. Once you set your communication goals and understand better who your receiver is, you should be able to adapt your message to your receiver so that it has the intended effect.

Throughout this book, we will cover strategies for helping get your message delivered to your receiver in the way intended. But for now, let’s turn our attention to competency development.

  1. Encoding and decoding were central concepts in Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s sender-receiver model of communication. Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1949). You can read a brief summary here.


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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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